It’s been a month now since regular Winnipeg Transit rider Candice Bodnaruk witnessed something so disturbing that she not only reported it to the city, she also contacted the Free Press.
She and her partner had been waiting at the end-of-the-line Unicity transit stop on Portage Avenue near the Perimeter on a late-July Saturday morning when the bus pulled up and passengers began exiting. That’s when she first noticed the grey-haired female operator, standing at the front of the bus, looking towards the back.
"She was yelling, ‘Get out!’"
Bodnaruk was still waiting to get on, so it wasn't until she boarded the bus that she saw who the driver was yelling at; the only passenger who had remained on the bus. The man — who seemed to be sleeping — was seated by a window, "slumped down," she wrote in her email to me.
She noticed something else about the passenger.
He appeared to be Indigenous.
Bodnaruk was still standing and watching when the driver grabbed a broom and went directly to the man who still seemed to be sleeping.
"Then, to my shock, she jabbed him with the broom."
That woke him. And it outraged Bodnaruk.
"At no point was he belligerent or aggressive toward the driver," she wrote. "In fact, he seemed confused and apologetic that he had fallen asleep. He did not confront the driver who had jabbed him, but proceeded to stumble off the bus and across the parking lot."
The next day, Sunday, she reported the incident to 311.
Five days later, someone at the city left Bodnaruk a voice mail message saying the driver would be spoken to and "reinstructed." By the time I called, the city said it was "investigating" the report.
Nevertheless, the message Bodnaruk received from the city left her doubting that Transit was taking the broom incident — and its wider implication about bus-driver training — as a serious concern.
"What I really want to stress here," she wrote, "is from my perspective, this man was an innocent, sleeping passenger who was harming no one. He was completely helpless when the driver chose to assault him with the broom. And that's what it was, assault. My partner and I couldn't help thinking that this man was someone's child, brother, friend, and he was being treated so horribly and was not safe on public transportation.
"I also have no doubt that this unprovoked assault was racially motivated... As a white woman, I am pretty sure that if that had been myself asleep in my seat, the driver would not have proceeded to assault me. Moreover, we must ask ourselves what would have happened if the passenger had chosen to react violently towards the driver, simply to defend himself. By choosing to assault him she put the entire bus at risk. If the passenger had a knife or other weapon he could have lunged at her or myself and the situation would have been much worse. Luckily, that didn't happen."
But an attack like that did happen just six months ago.
A male bus driver at another end-of-the line stop woke another last-remaining-passenger in the early morning darkness of Valentine's Day. The difference was that young man refused to get off the otherwise-empty bus on the University of Manitoba's Fort Garry campus and the confrontation turned violent. The 58-year-old driver was fatally stabbed.
"The tragic loss of Jubal Fraser has profoundly impacted the transit family and will for many years to come," the acting director of Winnipeg Transit, Greg Ewankiw, said after the alleged assailant, 22-year-old Brian Kyle Thomas, was charged with second-degree murder.
That should put what happened late last month at the Unicity stop in important context. That, plus the everyday stress of driving a bus to a schedule and, of course, interacting with problematic passengers.
But even Aleem Chaudhary, the acting president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, Local 1505 — which represents about 1,400 transit employees, including 1,130 drivers — can't condone the driver's use of a broom on a passenger.
Initially, when I forwarded Bodnaruk's email about the incident to the union leader, he called it "concerning."
"The situation that the rider presents does not show the professionalism ATU expects from its members," he said.
"The operator should have called control centre to notify of a possible sleeper," Chaudhary added. "Although in the past, Transit control personnel have requested operators approach and check passengers/sleepers to assess the passenger's well-being."
But in an email sent late this week, Chaudhary reported that according to a union steward who saw the video, the bus driver "used the soft end of the broom very lightly."
If you're wondering what the broom is supposed to be used for on the bus, Chaudhary explained the obvious: "The broom is there for the purpose of cleaning, as well as removing snow and debris off the back of the bus."
Chaudhary also shared more detail about what the driver told the union about the incident.
"When the passenger boarded the bus, he did not have any fare (she let him ride anyway) and told the operator that he wanted off at the end of the line (Unicity terminal).... It should also be pointed out that the operator smelled alcohol while talking with this passenger, when he got on the bus."
I don't know what allegedly smelling alcohol has to do with using a broom to wake a sleeping passenger. Unless it's to suggest the driver was even more foolish than Bodnaruk knew. Given the horror of what happened in that similar circumstance last February, the driver should have known using a broom to wake the sleeping man posed a potential threat; and poking someone who may have been under the influence of alcohol could have been even more dangerous.
But in a way, the blame for how the driver handled the situation is shared as much — or more — with the City of Winnipeg. It suggests a lack of training, which Chaudhary says the union wants, but isn't getting.
That reminds me of another event that relates to what Bodnaruk witnessed last month. It was back in January 2016, on the first anniversary of Maclean's magazine branding Winnipeg Canada's most racist city, that Mayor Brian Bowman announced mandatory diversity training for every civic employee as a kickoff to the city's Year of Reconciliation.
Which brings us back to the bus driver, the broom and the story's bottom line. More than 18 months after Bowman’s big announcement, Chaudhary says he is not aware of any bus drivers who have been provided the cultural awareness training, "particularly when it comes to our Indigenous community."
The city claims that so far "a handful of bus operators have completed the half-day Indigenous Awareness training program." And yet bus drivers are among the front-line civic workers who need it most.
Which in part, at least, may explain why a broom meant to remove "debris from the back of the bus" was shamelessly used by one driver as if the dozing Indigenous passenger was just that.
Debris at the back of the bus.
So much for reconciliation and diversity training, Mr. Mayor.